Advice From Andrew Fuller on Preaching the Cross of Christ
Regular exposition of the Scriptures in one church fellowship places certain unique demands on the preacher. Remaining fresh while remaining faithful, and preaching consistently without preaching predictably can be significant challenges. A perennial problem for any settled preaching ministry, however, is that of remaining Christ-centred and gospel focused in our ministry of the Word, while not essentially recycling the same format of message week on week. There is a risk of making our sermons stories which always have a ‘Jesus punchline’ regardless of the Scripture passage they are expounding, or the themes on which they are touching. There are many helpful treatments of this issue in modern preaching literature, but Andrew Fuller’s counsel to a young colleague on the task of preaching contains some gems which can be carried into the pulpit time and time again. What follows is a summary of his counsel, with some hints as to how it can be applied in our preaching today.
In writing his Thoughts on Preaching in Letters to a Young Minister, Fuller cautions against cross-less preaching, contending that ‘every sermon should contain a portion of the doctrine of salvation by the death of Christ’. To preach with an absence or inadequacy in this area means that we are not exercising gospel ministry, and that ‘a want of the doctrine of the cross is a defect which no pulpit excellence can supply’. Fuller’s advice on this issue is atomic and suggestive, but provides coherent guidelines on keeping Christ and his cross in the foreground of the ministry of the Word.
Fuller’s first concern is to clear the ground of common misconceptions on this issue. The preacher must reject the temptation towards reductive or superficial inclusion of the cross in his sermons. Not every message can take the cross of Christ as its ‘immediate and direct topic of discourse’, particularly given the sheer variety of thematic and generic content which the Bible embodies. Our ministries ought to be as varied as the Scriptures they expound, and there is no excuse for becoming programmatic in our handling of Christ’s saving work. How, then, can the whole corpus of Scripture lead us to messages which unwaveringly speak of the cross of Christ without violating their contextual and canonical location?
Fuller’s answer to this question is to make the cross his centre of gravity for all of the other themes and passages contained in the Bible. Does the Scripture we are preaching operate on themes which the doctrine of Christ’s cross will later suppose? An example here might be our exposition of the Law of God. In speaking of the goodness and the grace of the law in God’s revelation of his mind and will, we will earth this in the gospel realities it ultimately awakens in the conscience of sinful men and women, and from thee come to Christ and his cross. This is not the ‘Jesus punchline’ methodology, but a form of preaching which speaks with integrity about God’s progressive revelation while showing how the Old Testament truths point forward to Christ’s passion, and how the work of the cross speaks back to these themes. This model can be helpfully expanded to include how the preacher will handle the narrative sweep of Scripture, or the loves, joys and laments of the Psalms, always with an eye to how these themes are reflected, or resolved or redeemed in the cross of Christ.
This positional centrality of the cross can also be explored by seeing branches of the truth of Christ’s work spreading across the canon of Scripture. One might include here the ceremonial law, or the sacrificial system as emerging tendrils which will finally find full expression in Christ’s work on the cross. The counsel given here in some way adumbrates Warfield’s contention that the Old Testament is a ‘room richly furnished but dimly lit’. Or the preacher might identify evils which are ‘inimical’ to the cross of Christ and from them extrapolate the necessity and sufficiency of Christ’s work to address man’s need. Or the preacher might expand on consequences which flow out from the cross of Christ into the teaching of the later New Testament, or trace the ethical injunctions which the New Testament brings to bear right back into the work of the cross. This is a deeply Pauline approach, and one which does dignity to the fibre of individual texts and the weave of the whole word of God.
Fuller’s counsel here is far from exhaustive, but it demonstrates a degree of interpretive sophistication and nuance which are thoroughly applicable in contemporary preaching. We are to keep the cross in our preaching while declaring the whole counsel of God, we are to see Christ’s finished work as the divine denouement of God’s revelation of his gracious purpose to redeem a people, and we are to allow the generic variety of the Scriptures to voice this singular message of the Saviour and his unique and climactic place in redemption history, with all of their melodious and harmonious richness.
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